Jaishree Kularajah shares what it’s like to work in this south-east Asian nation’s burgeoning life insurance industry
January 2020, and I made the life-changing decision to move to Cambodia to work for a Japanese life-insurance company, having worked in Malaysia since I graduated in 2013. Little did I know that the pandemic would hit soon afterwards. Despite the unexpected restrictions that this brought, there was a silver lining: I had to adapt much more quickly to life in the country than I would have done without the restrictions (especially on overseas travel).
I have been working in Cambodia since then, managing product and actuarial functions with the support of the regional appointed actuary in Singapore and a local Phnom Penh team of four actuarial professionals. Interestingly, due to the travel restrictions, I connected virtually with my appointed actuary at first, only physically meeting him after more than two years of working together.
A growing industry
Cambodia’s life-insurance industry is very young, with its first life insurer only launching in 2012. Due to the maturity of the local market, simple endowment products are preferred, as people are more familiar with the basic banking system and so prefer what they perceive to be a money-back benefit (similar to a fixed deposit in the bank).
With more than 10 insurers now offering similar insurance solutions, the Cambodian market is spoilt for choice, which makes it competitive. In addition, despite the insurance industry being quite young, digitisation is off to a flying start, with multiple insurers having taken on the challenge of going digital in the past year.
The actuarial profession is also very new in Cambodia, and the Cambodian Actuarial Society was established recently by non-local and local actuaries. One of its objectives is to raise awareness of the profession among Cambodians, as well as to encourage local actuarial talent to pursue the exams, to further their careers.
Insurance knowledge among locals is almost non-existent unless they work in financial services – and even then, it does not go beyond the basics unless they are directly involved in actuarial or product development projects. Many people neither have a bank account nor expect to have one. In addition, as Khmer is the local language, my communication skills were put to the test when sharing knowledge about preparing insurance or actuarial-related materials. An adage from the Roman philosopher Seneca came to mind as I worked on my communication: “When we teach, we learn”. Moreover, I think this was exactly the practice I needed to pass the CP3 Communications paper last year…
While studying for my exams, I was often reminded about how important data is for most actuarial processes, but I did not expect to have to deal with a lack of relevant data in real life – at least, not regularly. This was true while I was working in Malaysia, but in Cambodia, where life insurance is only about a decade old, the lack of relevant and sufficient data is a very real issue. For example, for product-pricing purposes, I find I need to refer to the combination of the company’s limited years of data, and data from similar markets and/or reinsurance; any adjustments made for the local market have to be reasonably justified using my own actuarial reasoning and judgment.
Challenges and lessons
Moving to Cambodia has been one of the best decisions I have made, both professionally and personally, and I encourage anyone who is on the fence about an overseas move to just go for it. There might be challenges that test your mettle, but there will definitely be lessons for you to grow from, too. As British comedy entrepreneur Don Ward says: “If you’re going to doubt something, doubt your own limits.”
Jaishree Kularajah is actuarial senior manager at Dai-ichi Life Insurance in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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